By Lindsey Nair
MaKayla Lorick, winner of the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Washington and Lee University (W&L), can trace her love of stories to early childhood, when her grandparents told lively yarns about their younger years. She followed that thread to W&L, where it has afforded her the opportunity to seek and record some of the university’s most important overlooked tales.
Lorick, an English major who is minoring in creative writing, has been working since the summer of 2018 on a multi-institutional project that aims to incorporate more African-American perspectives into the history of desegregation and integration at private Southern schools. Her role allows her to comb through W&L’s Special Collections and gather oral histories from black alumni, faculty and staff.
“It’s such an exciting thing to dip your fingers into history and to listen to other people’s stories,” she said. “It betters your life and the lives of others. Just to color in one person’s perspective on history is beautiful.”
The overall project, “Pathway to Diversity: Uncovering Our Collections,” is a collaboration with Centre College and Sullivan Foundation partner schools Furman University and Rollins College, and is funded by a grant from Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). Along with its partner institutions, W&L is working to build a shared digital archive of information regarding the history of desegregation and integration at these schools. At W&L, the project is being led by Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sydney Bufkin, with support from Tom Camden, head of Special Collections and Archives.
Compared to public colleges and universities in the South, whose public status and reliance on federal funding forced them to integrate in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, Bufkin said, “the history of integration at W&L looks very different. It’s quieter, but also less effective and slower. We are grappling with the consequences of a response to integration that really, when you look at the documents and history, appears to be an attempt to do as little as possible… It is a history that we continue to live, so I think recognizing some of the ways the institution has dealt with race—or not dealt with race—historically is really valuable and is something we can address a little more head-on, especially as we try to do things differently.”
Washington and Lee’s board of trustees did not take action regarding integration until a full decade after Brown vs. Board, in July 1964, with a statement that was viewed by most as deliberately vague and uninspired. Without using the words “integration,” “desegregation” or “race,” it simply stated that no policy of discrimination existed at W&L. It was accompanied by no effort to recruit students of color or make W&L a more welcoming place for them.
Another eight years passed before Carl Linwood Smothers and Walter Blake became the first African-American graduates of W&L in 1972. The W&L School of Law had awarded its first degree to a black student, Leslie Devan Smith Jr., in 1969.
Initial goals for the ACS project included identifying materials currently in Special Collections that belong in the digital archive; creating an annotated bibliography; collecting oral histories from alumni, faculty and staff; and determining how to incorporate those materials into the curriculum. As Bufkin considered the oral history piece, she said, she immediately thought of Lorick, who had taken her African-American literature class.
English professor Lesley Wheeler agreed that Lorick, her advisee, would be a perfect fit, as she has an interest in digital humanities, and spent the summer of 2016 assisting history professor Ted DeLaney on an African-American history project in Special Collections. (Since becoming involved in the project, Lorick was also selected to be a member of the Working Group on the History of African Americans at W&L). Although the ACS grant does not cover student researchers, Bufkin was able to fund Lorick’s role with Mellon Digital Humanities summer research funding and, as the academic year commenced, with a Mellon Digital Humanities Fellowship.
What started as a simple summer job search became something incredibly meaningful, Lorick said. “I thought I was just going to get some random summer job on campus but Professor Wheeler really opened a door with one tiny conversation. Stumbling onto this project is one of the best things that’s happened to me. It’s really serendipity.”
Lorick began by reading sections of Mame Warren’s 1998 history, “Come Cheer for Washington and Lee” and Blaine Brownell’s “Washington and Lee University: 1930-2000.” She also scoured yearbooks, scrapbooks, newspapers, letters and other sources in Special Collections to start a list of people to approach for oral histories.
While the project was initially focused on black men who graduated in 1974, the first year with a noteworthy number of black graduates (17), Lorick and Bufkin soon realized that scope was too narrow. They also knew that Warren had already collected oral histories from those men. Lorick wanted to include the perspectives of black women, who had not been interviewed for Warren’s book, so she began to build a list from the first few years of coeducation at W&L, from 1985-1990. She also wanted to include faculty and staff, not just alumni.
Midway through the summer, it was time to start scheduling interviews. Over the next couple of months, she would record conversations with Ted Delaney ’85, associate professor of history at W&L and a Lexington native; Edwin Walker, a retired Print Shop employee; Stephanie Coleman ’89; Willard Dumas III ’91; and Marquita Dunn, who retired from Dining Services. These interviews included questions about the subject’s first impressions of Lexington and W&L, and their experiences connected to integration and/or coeducation.
Some interview subjects recalled negative experiences at Washington and Lee, such as a white boyfriend’s reluctance to escort his black girlfriend on the homecoming court, or white professors taking advantage of a black employee’s intellect and work ethic while denying him the respect and upward mobility he deserved. But Lorick said she was surprised to find that the interviews were, for the most part, positive.
“It ended up being more positive than I expected,” she said. “Interview subjects do not forget about the bad, but they are better able to remember the good.”
Lorick said she also had to work through some disappointment over the lack of detail provided about segregation in Lexington, particularly about the relationships between white and black citizens. “When the first individual told me that there was nothing more to say, I thought, there has to be! But as I began to unravel the project a little bit more, I thought more about what segregation must have looked like, and in the end they were totally right. They didn’t really know their neighbors, and that was just the culture.”
Recording these views and closing even the smallest gaps in W&L’s institutional history has been fulfilling, Lorick said. As a first-year student, she was frustrated by the lack of black perspectives in the archives; now, through her work as an upperclassman, she will be directly responsible for changing other students’ experiences.
“I thought that W&L wasn’t making a big enough effort to cover the staff, faculty, students and alumni. When I came upon this project, I knew that there was a choice that I had to make and it was exciting and thrilling. I get to go through these archives all the time and I see the people who have recorded history. This time, I’ll be the one recording history.”
One requirement of the ACS grant was that each of the four colleges incorporate findings into a course. At W&L, that course was “Race, Memory, Nation,” a first-year Fall Term writing seminar taught by Assistant English Professor Ricardo Wilson. Wilson spent considerable time with Bufkin and Lorick in Special Collections over the summer to develop the course, which delved into issues of race, integration and civil rights.
With guidance from Lorick and Wilson, the students conducted research and selected topics about which they were required to produce video essays as final projects in the course. The four groups decided to focus on integration in athletics, coeducation, and two pivotal moments in W&L history: the 1923 football game against Washington and Jefferson University, and the board of trustees’ 1961 decision to not invite Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at W&L.
The group that focused on integration in athletics secured on-camera interviews with four former W&L athletes, including its first African-American athlete, Dennis Haston ’70. Haston, who ran track and field, and former basketball player Eugene Perry ’75, ‘78L, recounted upsetting incidents both on and off campus. In one example, Perry was invited by a coach to try out for the basketball team, only to find out the team had already been selected and jerseys had been ordered. But the men said they also found allies at W&L, including white fellow athletes.
“At the time when I came to W&L, I didn’t come to W&L to be a pioneer. But now if people look at me, they want to say, ‘You were a pioneer.’” Haston said. “I was one of the first ones to … open the door for other African-Americans to come. Maybe because of me doing that, it has made it easier for other students to come. I’m glad I had the opportunity. If I had to live my life over again, I would still do it. I have no regrets about the decision I made.”
The hours of raw interview footage collected by Wilson’s students has been sent to Special Collections, where it will bolster Lorick’s contributions and strengthen the university’s overall archive of materials related to desegregation and integration. Wilson is cautiously optimistic about what he sees as positive strides toward confronting some of the university’s most difficult history and smoothing the way for future students of color.
“In general in the U.S., we have a tough time confronting our history, and W&L is certainly at a critical moment where I think there is great possibility,” he said. “It is also something we have to approach carefully because we have a chance to set the tone and make an example, not only in the region but also to other academic institutions.
“How fortunate we are to have someone like MaKayla Lorick, with a blend of extraordinary talent and extraordinary passion,” he said. “To have someone like her involved in this project is a good first step.”
MaKayla Lorick plans to present her findings during Black Alumni Reunion weekend (March 8-9). She also has received a Johnson Opportunity Grant for summer 2019, which will allow her to gather more oral histories and develop a digital exhibit. She has begun to share her findings on her project website. As she prepares to graduate in December 2019, she will hand off the project to other students. One, Rose Hein ’22, has already been awarded a summer research scholar position to contribute to the ACS project.
“Our hope is that this material and some of these questions will continue to be integrated into the classroom so students can be exposed and they can continue to work,” Bufkin said. “I think we are really excited to have this material support student-driven projects…It is a very collaborative effort. Nobody owns it or has a single direction.”
For MaKayla Lorick, what started as a two-month summer gig grew into an experience that she says “has really shaped me, has made me stronger, and has made me think that in a couple of years the university will truly be better.” She hopes that her daughter, Zara, 2, will someday become a General and will see her mother’s name on documents in university archives — a very different experience from her own.
“I can’t even imagine how that would have felt for me to see my mom’s name recording histories,” she said. “I hope that she can have that experience and she can know that anything is possible, that you can touch the stars and that you can be a history maker, and you can be on the right side of history, too.”
This story has been adapted slightly from the original version appearing on the Washington and Lee University website.